A very inspiring story from Kansas about how cancer patients at St. Luke’s Hospital are using art therapy to help understand and relieve emotional distress that comes with their illness…
Art Therapy Helps Relieve Cancer Patients at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas
By Alan Bavley
The Kansas City Star – http://www.kansascity.com/
Katherine Robinson’s hands are busy rolling and stretching and twisting the lump of clay on her table. But her attention is clearly fixed on Andrew Elman.
“You’re going to have to help me because this is kind of new for an old lady,” she tells him in her charming way.
Elman is an art therapist. Twice a month, he and associate Marilynn Demers visit St. Luke’s Hospital to encourage cancer patients like Robinson to express themselves through impromptu art projects of drawing, painting, even sculpting. It’s a service that their agency, NaturallyYours Inc., has been providing to the hospital for more than two years. The goal is to help cancer patients to better understand and express the emotional turmoil and uncertainty that can come with their illness. Robinson, 84, of Kansas City, Kan., has been in the hospital for several days, receiving chemotherapy for uterine cancer.
“This is my last treatment, then I go home to stay,” she says.
“That’s a good feeling,” Elman answers.
Robinson sits in an easy chair in her room chatting with Elman about the community groups in which she participates. She absently kneads the clay.
“It’s got the consistency of gum and Play-Doh,” Elman tells her.
“I can take a big bite,” Robinson says with a chuckle.
Robinson works the clay until the conversation flags. When she finishes, she has a long tube that twists and turns every which way.
“Now don’t ask me what this is because I don’t know myself,” she says.
Across the hall, Elman gives Susan Schiller, 54, of Lee’s Summit, a glue stick and a pile of magazine clippings to make a collage. Schiller is recovering from surgery to remove a large growth from her abdomen. This day she’s feeling relieved; she’s been told the growth was benign. Schiller is reluctant, at first, to start the project.
“I’m just not artsy,” she says. “This craftsy stuff, I’m not good at.”
But Schiller doesn’t need much coaxing. She starts sorting the clippings into those that she feels apply to her life and those that don’t. As she goes through the scraps of paper, she talks to Elman about the Pilates studio that she runs with her daughter, Kahley, who is the instructor.
“It’s been very positive, a great experience,” she says. “(Kahley’s) very tough on them. She pushes them,” but when they come on a regular basis, they feel so much better about themselves.”
Schiller is ready to start gluing her clippings to a sheet of paper.
“Caregiver,” one says.
“Essential wisdom,” another reads.
“These are all me,” Schiller says.
Elman carries his art supplies in a tool bag, like a handyman going from job to job. When he meets with patients for the first time, he tries to reassure them that they shouldn’t be concerned over whether or not they have artistic talent.
“Art therapy is not so much about the product as the process,” Elman says.
“We want them to move beyond that resistance that they don’t have the ability. It really helps them to get them talking about their lives and not be apprehensive about making art.”
Demers, president of Naturally Yours, thinks art plays a role in easing patients’ anxieties about the choices they have to make.
“What they can gain from it is strength and hope,” she says.
Demers recalled one patient, a young mother who was having a hard time telling her 10-year-old son about her cancer.
“It was clear from her art that it was a struggle for her,” Demers says. “But just the opportunity to talk to someone was helpful. We’re the safe person. We’re not part of the family.”
After working through her anxieties, the mother decided to do art therapy with her son as a way of finding common ground to discuss her situation.
“We opened the door for them to begin,” Demers says.
Schiller finishes pasting her collage. She struggles to swallow a pain pill and then tells Elman about her new creation.
“This, I think, represents me,” she says. And as she points to significant words and pictures on the paper, she tells him how she would interpret her work.
“As a mother, you’re a caregiver. And life’s about being balanced,” she says. “You have to find out who you are and find balance.”
“I believe in healing. I believe that kind words and healing words can change your whole life.”
Schiller points to some travel pictures. She remembers the time she spent hitchhiking through Europe when she was 19.
“Life is what you make it,” she says. “It can be as adventurous as you want.”
Elman asks Robinson to speculate about the squiggle of clay she has made.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a snake,” she says.
Robinson recalls her childhood growing up in rural Mississippi. There were plenty of snakes near her home. She learned to tell the harmless ones from the dangerous ones, like rattlesnakes. Elman offers her a box of watercolors, and she dabs her snake with brown and red.
“OK, baby, I’m through now,” she tells Elman. “I think I did pretty good.”
“I think you did great,” he says.